Heil Bone Hand

Today’s Poster is a remarkable one, from a German magazine in the pre-World War Two era, when the horrors of the Spanish Civil War were new, and featuring the classic propaganda theme of the slaughtered innocents. Here, however, with the relatively new inclusion of combat aircraft.


In some ways it’s a simple image, as well as a powerful one, but the simplicity is deceptive. The aircraft, their smoke trails (familiar then from airshows, and entertainment, before contrails were known) morphing into a skeletal, X-Ray hand (shocking then, as now) and a scene of destruction and death at the bottom, the viewer perhaps realising at the end the hand offering a salute.

The image is from the German leftist weekly ‘Worker’s Illustrated Newspaper’ (Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung) which was published from 1921 to 1938, latterly from Czechoslovakia, and is by German artist John Heartfeld. (He anglicised his name during a period of anti-British sentiment in Germany. He also escaped from the Gestapo. This is an artist who lived his political art on the edge.) This website GHDI explains the less immediately obvious layers to the artwork:

“This photomontage by Dada artist John Heartfeld, for example, offers a startlingly prescient indictment of the death and destruction to which Nazi war-mongering would soon lead. The image features a frightening skeletal hand, presumably in the form of the Hitler salute. The fingers of the hand are delineated by the dark exhaust of fighter planes. Bombed out, charred buildings are visible on the right; civilian war victims (including children) are seen on the left. The caption underneath reads: “This is the Salvation They Are Bringing Us!” [“Das ist das Heil, das sie bringen!”]. (Here, the word salvation [Heil] is a pun on the Nazi “Sieg Heil” used in conjunction with the Hitler salute.) Published a year before the start of the Second World War, this photomontage unmasks Hitler’s missionary zeal to “unify of the Reich” as reckless war-mongering.”


Unusually, the poster was re-published again by the artist, this time during the Second World War, as noted by the AWM website:

“Later on, during the Allied bombings of German cities Heartfield reissued it under the heading of ‘The Benefit Accomplished by Air Raids from the Point of View of Racial Selection and Social Hygiene’, with a cynical clipping from a current number of the ‘Berlin Journal for Biology and Race Research’: ‘The densely populated sections of cities suffer most acutely in air raids. Since these areas are inhabited for the most part by the ragged proletariat, society will thus be rid of these elements. One ton bombs not only cause death but also very frequently produce madness. People with weak nerves cannot stand such shocks. That makes it possible for us to find out who the neurotics are. Then the only thing that remains is to sterilize such people. Thereby the purity of the race is guaranteed.'”

A good webpage covers some highlights of Heartfield’s remarkable story here.

James Kightly, Vintage Aero Writer.

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